A “Scribbling Woman” from Salem

Two Salem-born authors competed for best-seller status in the 1850s, but it wasn’t really much of a competition: Miss Maria Cummins’s Dickensian novel The Lamplighter: or An Orphan Girl’s Struggles and Triumphs (1854) far outpaced Mr. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850) and The House of the Seven Gables (1851) in this decade, and after. Hawthorne’s classics did well in their first year of publication–selling over 6000 copies each–but 73,000 copies of the more ephemeral Lamplighter were purchased in the first year of its appearance, second only to a book penned by another female author from the same publishing house, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. These successes prompted the penning of a famous letter to his own publisher, William Ticknor, by a petulant Hawthorne in 1855 in which he complained that “America is now wholly given over to a d——d mob of scribbling women” and “I should have not chance of success while the public taste is occupied with their trash–and should be ashamed of myself if I did succeed. What is the mystery of these innumerable editions of the Lamplighter, and other books neither better nor worse–worse they could not be, and better they need not be, when they sell by the 100,000.” I don’t think Hawthorne is merely venting to his publisher, but also prodding him to be a bit more marketing-minded, as Cummins’s and Stowe’s more enterprising publisher, John P. Jewett of Boston, issued their works in multiple editions and formats for diverse audiences. All the editions of The Lamplighter that I have seen are rather lavishly illustrated, and there were also “tie-in” products like musical compositions and picture books. The protagonist of The Lamplighter, the orphan Gerty Flint, consequently becomes rather famous while her creator remains quite literally anonymous: Cummins published three more books (by “the author of The Lamplighter”) before her premature death at the age of 39 in 1866: only in later editions does her name appear on the title page. I’m not really a fan of this sort of sentimental fiction, but I’ve tried to read The Lamplighter a few times without much success: the prose stopped me once, and then I found out what would eventually happen to little Gerty’s kitten and I just didn’t want to go there………….

Cummins Curwen House Salem Essex Street

Lamplighter broadside LOC

Lamplighter Music

Lamplighter Sales 1854

Lamplighter

Lamplighter 1914

Cummins Obituary NYT

Frank Cousins photograph of the Samuel Curwen House, the birthplace of Maria Susanna Cousins, formerly at 312 Essex Street and moved to North Street in 1944 (it is now home to Historic Salem, Inc.); broadside advertising The Lamplighter from the John P. Jewett Company of Boston, 1854, and two musical tie-ins from the same year, Library of Congress; Sales figures for 1854 from The New York Times, December 20, 1854; 1884 and 1914 editions from 1884 and 1914, La Maiden en Noire; Miss Cummins’s obituary from the New York Times, 1866.


6 responses to “A “Scribbling Woman” from Salem

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